Times 2 - UK (2020-10-16)

(Antfer) #1

10 1GT Friday October 16 2020 | the times



he way you feel about
technological progress
is a generational thing.
I understand that in
the Seventies boomers
loved it, associating it
with rockets streaming
spacewards, polio
vaccines, the prospect of owning
superior white goods and the onward
march of mankind out of the cave of
ignorance towards the light and so on.
The ageing millennials of the
2020s (eg me) are pessimists. For us
technological progress means the
prophecies of QAnon, smartphone
addiction and a man with Pepe the
Frog as his profile picture getting in
touch on Twitter to let you know that
he thinks you look like a cuboid
Japanese watermelon.
I’m always moved to realise how
traumatic the death of technological

optimism has been for a certain type
of boomer, especially idealistic geeky
American men. Eric Lander is just
such a man, which accounts for the
anguished tone of his podcast, Brave
New Planet (produced by Malcolm
Gladwell’s company Pushkin). The
discouraging second episode (the first
is a skippable introduction offputtingly
titled What’s At Stake) is about
deep fakes. It’s a slick summary of
familiar territory: the ease of creating
fake pornography starring your
enemies and the dangers of political
disinformation. It is not cheering.
Lander talks about his optimism when

as a kid his mum took him to the
World’s Fair 14 times. He thought the
future would bring hoverboards and
jetpacks. What he got was revenge
porn and “truth decay”.
None of this is news exactly and
Brave New Planet lacks the narrative
push of the best Pushkin stuff. The
greatest thing about it is that it
suggests interesting material to
search for. Look up the deep-fake
video of Richard Nixon announcing
the failure of the moon landings
created by a team at MIT. Then go
to thispersondoesnotexist.com, which
gives you a new photograph of a
computer-generated human being
each time you refresh the page. All
these fake people have convincing
evidence of personality: laughter lines,
dorky glasses, bad hair. You can’t stop
yourself placing them socially: nerdy,
party-loving, works in HR. But each of
these characters exists only for the few
seconds before you refresh the page,
upon which they vanish for ever...
There’s a system on the computers
here at The Times for measuring how
interested readers are in the articles
we publish. I once scored a zero for
a piece I wrote about contemporary
poetry. Literally no interest. Anyway,
we’re going to talk about poetry again.
Stay with me. I promise we can get
this over with painlessly.

An Apollo 11 training
exercise in April 1969

Close Readings is a wise and
brilliant podcast about poetry from
the London Review of Books, now back
for another season. Two fine episodes
about Adrienne Rich and Robert Frost
are already up. The show adheres to
the only unbeatable podcast formula
there is, which is to get two clever
and interesting people talking about
something they love.
Professors Mark Ford and Seamus
Perry fulfil the qualification. Indeed,
in the context of academia Perry is
a bit of a charisma machine. I went
to his Larkin Lectures as a student
and he was always being followed
about by adoring crowds.
Making people care about things
nobody really likes is a crucial skill
for literary critics, who are swimming
against the tide of public indifference.
Frost I’m indifferent to and Rich I
barely know. Well, now I’ve bought
Rich’s Collected and retrieved Frost
from under my bed, where I keep the
books I don’t like. Success, I think.
OK, poetry over. Just time to say
that if you’re looking for something
intelligent and engaging, check out
The Last Archive, a show about
the history of truth hosted by the
American historian Jill Lepore.
Start with Project X, an episode
about the first computer to predict
the result of an American election.

The pessimist’s guide to technology


Brave New


Close Reading

The Last




muses on

porn and


Free download pdf